At Barton Springs, Austin’s popular swimming hole, there is often a man seen walking around holding a plastic waterproof camera. He tries not to draw attention to himself, because he wants to photograph people in their natural state, when they’re not self-conscious about having a camera in their faces. Sometimes he won’t even bring the camera to his eyes to take a picture; he’ll simply snap a shot with the camera at his hip in order to remain undetected. The man is Will van Overbeek, and he’s been shooting pictures of Barton Springs for more than ten years. The results of his subtle technique are impressive; it’s as if his camera were invisible at the time the photos were taken, enabling him to capture the raw naturalism of his subjects.
Van Overbeek is a documentary photographer, which means he photographs ordinary people going about their daily lives without asking them to pose for him. While traditional documentary photography usually centers around social reform, van Overbeek’s documentary style differs from the norm. “I’m not identifying a downtrodden group and using those photos as a crusade to help others less fortuntate than me. I am looking at my group, broadly, you know culturally, and just examining those things or illuminating my own culture… . If I feel that our culture has its absurdity, I have fun with that and that’s the vein that I’m mining,” he explains.
Although documentary photography is van Overbeek’s passion, he makes a living as a commercial photographer. He says most magazines are not interested in documentary photography, opting instead for photos of celebrities, so he makes his money taking photographs for advertisements for companies like Nike and Adidas. “I couldn’t do advertising stuff that looks like documentary photography if I weren’t a documentary photographer. And I couldn’t do documentary photography if I weren’t doing the advertising,” van Overbeek says. “It makes it all the more delicious when I get to do it for myself.”
His appetite for reality shines through in his Barton Springs series. Whether he’s photographing girls sunbathing with shorts on their faces to block the sun or wet dogs shaking off, his pictures are proof that he’s having a good time. But it’s not only the good times that have kept him going back to Barton Springs year after year. “There’s humanity thriving there. You have all these different age groups and kids coming of age,” he explains. “Barton Springs has some sort of spiritual significance in the lives of many people, and they artistically show that through photos of Barton Springs early in the morning when no one is there or through working with Save Our Springs to preserve its purity. While I endorse all that, for me, the spiritual significance of Barton Springs has something to do with the social life there. There’s this humanity there.”
To capture his subjects in their natural state, van Overbeek uses the same kind of film you find in a disposable camera, and his method of making the print is the same as in a one-hour photo lab. In fact, the camera he uses to photograph Barton Springs cost him less than $200. He says that other photographers are unimpressed with his work because he doesn’t push any technical boundaries. “I’m trying to use the techniques that belong to my culture, really. Who uses disposable cameras and one-hour color print? Us. [It’s] an American thing. We’re the culture that does this,” he says, adding that he even wants to do his next project—people with tattoos at Barton Springs—with a pocket camera. “I take the common materials—the cheap camera, the ordinary film, the ordinary processing, the ordinary prints—and I make a photo that has emotional impact for me.”